Anyone familiar with Christopher Douglas’ character Ed Reardon (in the Radio 4 comedy series Ed Reardon’s Week) will be aware of the contemporary plight of a once-successful novelist struggling to make a living as a jobbing writer, with only the support of a less than helpful agent and Elgar, his cat. If you’ve read George Gissing’s New Grub Street then you’ll know exactly what’s going on.
Gissing published New Grub Street in 1891 describing a literary world that differed so much from the ‘old’ Grub Street that Samuel Johnson described in his dictionary of 1755. In his novel, Gissing describes how Edwin Reardon struggles to complete his traditional ‘three volume’ literary novels, despairs at the quality of his writing, and slides relentlessly into poverty. In contrast we see how the younger, mercenary, calculating Jasper Milvain plans to develop his writing career by borrowing from his widowed mother, socialising with editors and publishers, and producing a steady output of short pieces, (essays, book reviews, and commentaries) for various magazines, newspapers, and journals. The literary milieu is completed by Alfred Yule, a critic whose literary and social disappointments have resulted a cynical demeanour, a venomous tongue, and an uncharitable disposition. From the perspective of today, more than a century later, we are experiencing our own ‘post-modern Grub Street,’ in which traditional writers persist with long-form writing with the aspiration of agency representation and hard-copy publication whilst an alternative cohort of digital believers place their faith in social media, self- publishing, e-book publication, and print-on-demand. Regardless of publishing choice, the relative impoverishment of writers continues even if the consequences are, for the time being at least, not quite so extreme.
New Grub Street is an interesting period piece. It describes the dilemmas and choices facing writers of that time but we can recognise that they are eternal dilemmas that we too can encounter. I have a particular interest in the state of London in this late Victorian era. London is in the process of changing and many of the buildings we presently identify as the ‘old’ London were being constructed to replace the even older world that Dickens described and which dated back to the 17th century. The biggest impact on changing reading habits would have come from the creation of public literacy by the education reforms of the 1870s and 1880s. London is on the cusp of modernity, and is becoming recognisable as the city we inhabit today. Mass society is being created; there’s a mass public transport system in development and the beginnings of a mass media – at this stage the medium is print (newspapers, journals, magazines, tracts, manifestos) but cinema and radio are only a decade or so away and television wasn’t much later.
New Grub Street itself would have benefited from Gissing having a more critical editor. At over 600 pages it could benefit from a bit of pruning, but then part of the attraction of Victorian fiction is its expansiveness, its desire to leave no potential sub-plot unexplored, its leisurely demands upon your time and attention.